Every year I like to watch all of the Best Picture nominees for the Academy awards. This year I’ll start with the latest offering from Alejandro Innaritu, The Revenant. You may recall that Innaritu’s Birdman took home the coveted award last year. Garnering a nomination for this year’s entry, Innaritu stands a decent chance of being a repeat winner.
The story of The Revenant follows the tale of Hugh Glass, a widower frontier scout with a half Pawnee teenage son named Hawk, who is hired by a fur trading company as a guide. Also on the expedition is John Fitzgerald, a survivor of an attack who has had half of his scalp removed. A disastrous encounter with a local tribe leaves the expedition with diminished strength and on the run. Glass is scouting a safe trail for them across the mountains back to their fort when he is attacked and savagely mauled by a bear. The commander is unable to mercy kill Glass and leaves him in the care of Fitzgerald, Hawk and Bridger, a younger man about Hawk’s age. The men are to wait for Glass’s natural death and then give him a proper burial.
After the commander’s men leave, Fitzgerald offers to mercy kill Glass for the safety of his remaining caretakers. Glass reluctantly agrees. However, his son arrives in time to witness it and tries to stop Fitzgerald. During the struggle, Fitzgerald kills Hawk. Fitzgerald then drags his body off and lies to Bridger about knowing where Hawk is. In the middle of the night Fitzgerald awakens Bridger with a tale of seeing the local natives who have been tracking them nearby and that they have to leave. He then bullies the younger man into leaving Glass, who certainly won’t survive. Bridger reluctantly goes with Fitzgerald.
Glass miraculously survives his injuries and goes through an extensive ordeal to return to the fort and try and get justice for his son. This ordeal includes being abandoned with no food, a long trip down the very cold river, and riding his horse off a large cliff into a tree, all apparently within days of suffering severe injuries. He has a short respite when he finds a Pawnee man who is willing to share food and shelter with him, but other than that he eats almost nothing. It’s assumed that he can reach down and get some snow for water whenever he needs, but we never see him doing so. After having somehow never succumbing to his injuries, the numbing cold, or the starvation, he succeeds in returning to the fort. Fitzgerald, seeing him return alive, steals some money and a horse and takes off to escape the justice he knows is coming.
While not the noblest of motivations, the story of revenge is easy for the audience to understand and empathize with. And this is where the movie really fails for me. I never really get the sense from Glass that anything other than his own survival is the reason for his intense struggle to best the elements and continue living. It is certainly clear from an intellectual standpoint that we are supposed to think he wants revenge for his murdered son, but it fails to reach on an emotional level. The relationship with his son isn’t well established. We are given flashbacks of the murder of his wife and of Glass nursing his son back to health from some unknown illness, but these scenes fail to carry much emotional weight or impact. The audience is expected to understand that Glass feels strongly about revenge because it’s how we should feel, not because the movie has in any way made us feel this. Sometimes this works, but this movie hinges on our belief that Glass would do literally anything and everything to get revenge for his son, and that requires the movie to make us feel some emotion. The one encounter we see between father and son is brief and consists only of Glass reminding Hawk that he is different and everyone dislikes him for it. He doesn’t stand up for his son and his rights as a person, he never appears to care especially much at all for the boy aside from the flashbacks. Flashbacks which could easily be fever dreams as he also repeatedly sees his deceased wife.
In stark contrast the seemingly selfish motivations of Fitzgerald actually seem practical and reasonable given the circumstances he is confronted with. While not an honorable man in the traditional sense of most Westerns, he never really seems to have a predilection for murder or theft of any sort. His motivation to receive the payment that he worked for seems completely within reason. For me it was easier to empathize with Fitzgerald’s attitudes and actions. He’s a man who can make the hard choice and do what needs to be done. When he makes his decisions they feel right, they aren’t without their regrets or the desire to not have to make them, but his motivations are clear. Survival is what’s most important to him, and that includes getting paid for his work. This is clearly evidenced by his willingness to end Glass’s suffering. It’s not a deed he relishes, but it is one that is necessary.
While not bad, or uninteresting, I found The Revenant at times very unbelievable. I love movies, and am fully capable of suspending a lot of disbelief, but this movie found a way to stretch that ability to the breaking point. Glass’s journey is full of enough misfortune for Murphy to raise an eyebrow in disbelief. This film also lacked an emotional core to really draw me in and make me empathize with Glass. I didn’t feel the raw emotion of his struggle to survive as advertised. For these reasons I would not vote for The Revenant for Best Picture.
Next up: Room by director Lenny Abrahamson.